Bow and arrow
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - February 28, 2020 - 12:00am

After the violence and anarchy of Tokhang and Double Barrel, the government now has a more targeted campaign against the drug menace.

It’s called PADS – the Philippine Anti-Illegal Drugs Strategy.

Chairman Catalino Cuy of the Dangerous Drugs Board (DDB), the policy-making body in the anti-drug campaign, came to an interview with “The Chiefs” on One News carrying brochures on PADS and Executive Order No. 66, which Malacañang released in October 2018.

One brochure declares the objective of PADS: “By 2022, the Philippines will be able to achieve drug-free communities through supply reduction efforts involving law enforcement and prosecution with strong adherence to the rule of law and observance of human rights, coupled with comprehensive demand reduction initiatives and supported by strong international ties.”

Is that reassuring to rights advocates? In fact, drug killings have been going down since Sen. Bato dela Rosa left the Philippine National Police and the lead role in anti-drug enforcement was transferred from the PNP to the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA).

Still, with huge amounts of money involved, it’s a dirty war and killings are unlikely to end completely by 2022. But I’ve known Cuy since his days as PNP aide to then president Fidel Ramos, and I believe that the DDB is genuinely pursuing measures to deal with the other aspects of the drug menace. The same goes for the PDEA and even certain reform-minded elements in the PNP.

*      *      *

Nearly four years into the war on drugs, can the government declare victory?

Officials involved in the war admit that it would be difficult to say.

There is no accurate baseline, in the first place, to compare numbers and determine improvement. Cuy stresses that it is “impossible to determine” with accuracy the volume of illegal drugs in the country – whether in 2016 when Rodrigo Duterte assumed power or at present.

Equally difficult to determine is the prevalence of drug abuse. Cuy says four million is “a more or less realistic estimate” of the number of drug abusers in the Philippines – much lower than the 7-8 million mentioned by President Duterte.

The fear factor in Duterte’s “shock and awe” approach gave a glimpse into the extent of the problem.

Echoing an admission by Duterte, Cuy said they were surprised and unprepared for the number of people who presented themselves for recording as mild or occasional drug users, recreational users, or full-blown addicts needing medical intervention and rehabilitation.

Under Oplan Tokhang, cops knocked on doors, telling residents of information that there was a drug personality in the premises who must mend his/her ways after being documented.

The regular reports of drug suspects turning up dead, a number of them with their heads wrapped in duct tape like mummies and their wrists bound behind their backs, undoubtedly contributed to the flood of surrenders. The neutralization of alleged narco politicians raised the fear factor.

But the fear didn’t seem to rub off on large-scale traffickers, who brought illegal drugs right through the Bureau of Customs. It’s hard to determine the extent of drug smuggling, Cuy said. In our talks with PDEA head Aaron Aquino, he intimated that the BOC is one of the weakest links in the war on drugs.

*      *      *

As drug personalities registered in droves, the government saw an opportunity to measure the success of the war. Authorities began classifying communities as “drug-free” or “drug-cleared” zones.

There was one major problem though: the data could be easily manipulated, especially in areas where barangay officials and local government executives themselves were involved in drugs.

Other officials who are part of the drug war also previously told The Chiefs that in some areas, they found out that drug suspects with friends at city hall or the barangay office were simply told to leave the city when “validators” visited.

Interior Undersecretary Martin Diño is proposing that instead of cities, towns or barangays being declared by officials as drug-cleared or drug-free, they must be certified as “BADAC-functional.” BADAC stands for the Barangay Anti-Drug Abuse Council, which will monitor the drug situation at the community level for appropriate intervention.

At the same time, to set a more accurate baseline, the DDB is conducting a survey on drug prevalence nationwide.

The survey, conducted by region starting in late December 2019, covers 9,300 respondents selected at random. Some 400 government “enumerators” are undertaking the survey, with the results reviewed by experts from academe and an outfit that specializes in scientific polling. Cuy expects the results by April, and he hopes the survey can be done every three years to update the information. He says this is the only survey of its kind in the world.

How can you expect honest answers? Will a respondent admit that there’s a drug addict in the house? Cuy thinks the phrasing of the questions, pilot-tested in Metro Manila, won’t be intimidating to a household where there is a drug problem. Sample question: do you know anyone in the area who is abusing or dealing in drugs?

No specifics will be asked, so that the respondent will not feel like a rat or, more dangerously, be suspected of being a snitch by drug dealers in the community.

*      *      *

Like other members of the Interagency Committee on Anti-Illegal Drugs, Cuy admits that there are no accurate baselines for the war, as pointed out by Vice President Leni Robredo during her short-lived stint as ICAD co-chair.

ICAD members had in fact mentioned this problem to The Chiefs long before Robredo’s appointment as anti-drug chief.

Cuy says PADS is like a bow and arrow, targeting reduction of both supply and demand: “one will not work without the other.” It has not done away entirely with the concept behind tokhang. But this time, cops are taking a back seat, and civilians including possibly religious workers will be tapped to encourage drug suspects to mend their ways. Or else… ? Well, law enforcement remains a component of PADS.

It’s a war where declaring victory or success is complicated. But it’s possible to reduce the destructive impact of illegal drugs on lives and society. Drug abusers can be rehabilitated and encouraged to reform. Drug dealers can be sent to prison and their assets seized, and they can be prevented from financing election campaigns or entering politics themselves.

If there’s anything that can be considered a success in the drug war in the past three years, it’s the development of measures to confront the problem – beyond kill, kill, kill.

Cuy was an interior undersecretary when tokhang started.

“We didn’t know what to do then,” Cuy told us. “Now we’re facing it head-on… we feel we’re treading in the right direction.”

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